In Part I of this series, I laid out my plan to play through a series of RPG systems – one a week – over the summer. On top of that, I wrote about my gaming groups’ desire to maintain a single set of characters and therefore a cohesive story for the duration of the campaign.
Last week, we played our session of Gamma World. I used the “Truman Show“ trope to move the PCs from a high fantasy D&D world into the chaotic post-apocalypse of Gamma World. The players already had some idea of the “real world’s” background because of our Microscope session. So even as the PCs stepped into the complete unknown, the players began making reference jokes to the Microscope timeline we had created.
The PCs stepped into a research/control station attached to the D&D world’s “bubble,” and had to explore and fight their way through it.
Because I didn’t have a lot of prep time for the session, I used the LUCAS lab section of the Legion of Gold adventure, modifying the map very slightly to include an entrance from the biome, as well as changing the station’s research objective to the D&D world instead of “the moon.”
The intention was for the players to use the teleport pad in the adventure to teleport to a large city in which we would start our Shadowrun story. Which is exactly what they did. Sometimes things work out the way you want them to…
And other times they don’t.
The session itself went fine. We’re all familiar with the Gamma World system, and using the pre-published encounters made everything simple. However, at the very start of the session, the players expressed a desire to abandon their D&D characters, and pick up new Gamma World characters. Which kind of defeated the purpose of the whole “Your D&D world was actually a huge biome” trope. Their reasons were twofold, and they were both legitimate.
First, they had trouble porting their D&D characters to the Gamma World system. This is an interesting commentary on player’s identification with their characters. To a player, their character is generally identified not by personality traits and memories (though that is a small part of the character), but rather by the character’s abilities. When the abilities that define your character are stripped away, it becomes difficult to retain the character’s identity. This makes sense. Character creation is all about defining what a character can do. When we help a new player create a character, we ask questions like, “Do you want your character to be a sneaky thief who fights with daggers, or a devout knight fighting for a higher cause?” Sure, there’s an allusion to personality (sneaky, devout) but the images that come to mind are the types of things such a character might do.
Second, the players simply wanted to try out new character concepts. If something looked interesting in Gamma World, but didn’t necessarily line up with their D&D character, they wanted the freedom to go with it. This, I realized, is a very important aspect of trying out a new system. It’s not just about learning a new set of rules, and what those rules do well, but also being who you want to be within the system. If I had put my foot down and made the players stick to one character concept across systems, I think the summer’s fun factor would have gone down considerably.
So we’re no longer trying to use the same characters all summer. To preserve some sort of continuity, what we decided to do was use a “once removed” story device in which the party from one system crosses paths with the party from the new system – and we make a handoff. So in this example, the Gamma World characters also happened to be in the LUCAS facility, and were present when the D&D characters showed up. They pointed the D&D characters to the exit, and then the players started playing Gamma World.
What I learned
In planning our Gamma World session, I should have looked ahead to Shadowrun and limited the Gamma World origins that the players could use. Since I didn’t, some players made “Shadowrun un-playable” PCs. For example, a Saurian (dinosaur) character fits into Gamma World just fine, but there’s no way to move one into a Shadowrun campaign. There are plenty of Gamma World human-ish or human compatible origins that would move very nicely to Shadowrun without a bump. As a matter of fact, I would estimate a good half of the 50-ish Gamma World origins do not specify physical form (eg, Mind Breaker, Magnetic, Temporal). Unfortunately, since I didn’t put any restrictions into place, some of my players may have to abandon their characters. On the other hand, we also could have reskinned (see below).
I also learned that players identify most strongly with their character’s abilities and skills. To that end, everyone should be liberal with reskinning things. In my campaign, a player should be able to take their D&D paladin, and turn it into a Gamma World Mythic Yeti because the abilities of that combo most closely line up with the Paladin’s D&D abilities. But here’s the catch – the player should feel free to describe the character’s physical appearance as not a Yeti, but still in terms of what their D&D character looked like. In this way, we’re playing a new system, but the player can still retain a strong attachment to the character through (roughly) what it can do. Reskinning is a beautiful thing.
These lessons are all theoretical, of course, to someone who is trying to maintain a party of the same characters across a variety of systems.
I’m still going to link each of the sessions together so that there is an uninterrupted narrative crossing the summer. I’m doing this mostly because I think it’s a cool idea, and the players are on board with it. We’re using the “once removed” idea to allow players the freedom to create characters that are interesting to them in each system. Next week, we’ll be playing Shadowrun, so as the Gamma World party appears in a teleport transportation depot, they will see the Shadowrun group walking across the depot’s plaza. I will also note that, if we had decided to maintain the same characters, the story could have still followed the same path – instead of seeing a group of Shadowrunners crossing the plaza, the Gamma World characters could have crossed it themselves, and into the Shadowrun story. So next up: Shadowrun!